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Collection Civil Rights History Project

Collecting and Presenting the Freedom Struggle at the Library of Congress

What makes a mass social movement?  How is it defined? What happened as part of the movement and why? What are its obvious features and its hidden aspects? Who are the actors, both famous and obscure?  These are among the prominent questions to keep in mind when we seek to understand the historical origins, changing meanings, and the current resonance of social and cultural phenomena.  It is also important to note that the ways in which we frame the object of our study, has consequences.  That is, the conceptual basis of our inquiry will result in either an expansive and comprehensive understanding of the past or a strictly limited one. 

In this regard, it is an undeniable fact that the struggle to secure freedom, justice and a better future for African Americans in the mid-to-late twentieth century was, and remains, a crucial social, cultural, and political phenomenon that defined the course of the United States.  The commonplace understanding of the "Civil Rights Movement" includes events and actions that took place between the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and 1968, the year which saw the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, as well as the dozens of riots that King's murder sparked.  Scholars have argued in favor of a long-term view of the struggle, however, one that stretches into the past, that is, well before the latter half of the previous century.  In the coming months and years, as the nation and the world contemplate and commemorate such signal events, the Library of Congress's unparalleled collections will continue to provide researchers with abundant resources to illuminate those historic moments and movements, however these may be defined by the scholar and student.

The Library's holdings encompass subject-specific collections that focus on the narrower definition of the Movement discussed above.  Those collections are complemented by materials that document, to borrow the historian Marc Bloch's term, the longue durée, or the historical process that structures the "black freedom struggle."  Several such collections in the Library are filled with the voices and memories of individuals whose experiences and memories span centuries.  Collections in this category, such as the reminiscences of formerly enslaved African Americans, expand and broaden our understanding of the sense of black community and identity that lent continuity to the contemporary Civil Rights struggle.  The Library of Congress is making these firsthand accounts accessible through web presentations of digitized collections, online exhibitions, blogs, webcasts and podcasts.

Portrait of William Watkins, formerly enslaved African American, from the U.S. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers' Project slave narratives collections.

The historical dimensions of the African American experience are compellingly related by former slaves through oral testimonies, diaries, letters, recordings and written transcripts of interviews.  More than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Housed in the Library's Manuscript Division, the typewritten transcripts have been digitized and are accessible on the Library's website. In addition, 26 audio-recorded interviews of former slaves reside in the Library's American Folklife Center. They are accessible to the public through the Center, both as a web presentation titled "Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories" and as a podcast series, "Voices from the Days of Slavery: Stories, Songs and Memories." 

These voices can be reviewed alongside the personal accounts of Mississippi bluesmen, "Big Bill" Broonzy, Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson, who talk and sing about life in the segregated South in the years before and after World War II.  Their stories and music were recorded in the 1930s and 1940s by folklorist Alan Lomax, whose collection is housed in the American Folklife Center.

The Library arguably houses the nation's most comprehensive collections of the post-WWII Civil Rights Movement.  The manuscript materials and administrative records of notable individuals like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and James Forman and organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are particularly exemplary. These are housed in the Library's Manuscript Division.  They are complemented by the Motion Picture, Broadcast and Recorded Sound Division's rich collections of archival sound and film and video recordings that document several eras of the freedom struggle. 

Beginning in 2011, those collections have been significantly enhanced by born-digital video recordings with participants in the struggle, produced by the Library and its partner, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture External, for the national Civil Rights History Project (CRHP), which was created by a 2009 act of Congress.  The interviews, a few more than one hundred in number, were conducted by one of the premier oral history collecting organizations, the Southern Oral History Program External at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for the project.  Through this initiative, the experiences of young people in the struggle fifty years ago come alive for a new generation, in stark detail and sobering clarity.  As with many of the Library's unique collection items, students of history (and archives) will be drawn to the ways in which CRHP interviews "speak" with items in different Library divisions , adding nuance and depth to the perspectives of a single individual.

Poster commemorating the murder of Jonathan Daniels, SNCC worker, in Alabama, 1965
Ruby Sales, CRHP interviwee

For example, the events surrounding the 1965 murder in Alabama of the young theology student, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, are recalled by human rights activist Ruby Sales in a 2011 oral history interview for the CRHP. Sales describes the moment when Daniels pushed her out of harm's way and received the shotgun blast intended for her.  Sales' recollections, when read in tandem with the first-hand field reports from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) investigation into the shooting, enlarges our understanding of life and death on the front lines of the freedom struggle. The SNCC reports are housed in the James Foreman Papers in the Library's Manuscript Division.  Artist Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. augments the story of the tragedy with a recent visual perspective (ca. 2007) on Daniels' death with a letterpress poster titled, "Someone died for your right to vote, Jonathan Myrick Daniels shot to death, Hayneville, Alabama, on 20 August 1965."  The item is housed in the Prints and Photographs Division, along with other posters and images from the Civil Rights era. 

Other examples of parallel and cross-cutting collections are close to hand:  The Library's exhibition, "A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington," captures a pivotal event in the movement's history through compelling photographs, housed in the Prints and Photographs Division.  Like the story of Sales and Daniels, the events of the day are also recounted by several individuals, such as Clarence Jones, and documented for the Civil Rights History Project Collection.  Adviser and speechwriter to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Jones recalls the text he prepared and the way in which Dr. King departed from the script to extemporaneously deliver what has come to be known as the "I Have a Dream Speech" at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.  Jones's story is one of several video excerpts that have been embedded in a series of blog posts about the March.  Recorded interviews in other collections complement Jones's memories, such as the perspectives of Rev. Joseph Lowery, a key member of Dr. King's inner circle, and Judge Constance Baker Motley, both of which were collected for the National Visionary Leadership Project Collection.  In 2007, the Library acquired the collection, an assemblage of more than 300 interviews with significant figures in 20th-century African American history such as Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height and Maya Angelou.

Taken as a whole, these voices, emerging from personal letters, journals, graphic materials, and audiovisual recordings, all housed at the national library, provide audiences with unparalleled insights into the social, cultural and political history of African Americans' struggle for freedom and equality, from the very beginnings of the country to the present day.